Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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The Olympics: Questions From Bill K

I had an e-mail exchange with Bill Katovsky yesterday that raised a couple of interesting questions about things that have happened at the Olympics over the last couple of days.   Bill has written a number fitness and training oriented books, most recently one on minimalist footwear and injury prevention.  Here is a brief summary of two questions from Bill.

1)  Great Britain seems to be doing very well the last couple of days in the medals count.  Is there a home field advantage?

When I looked this morning the Brits stood third after the US and China who were tied for first.  There is an excellent graphic from 2008 in the New York Times that explores medals by country over the years.  It looks like the home field advantage is substantial.  Australia for example went from 41 total medals in 1996 to 58 in 2000 when the Olympics were in Sydney.   In 2004 and 2008 they were back in the 40s.


2)    About Katie Ledecky, the 15 year old who won the 800m freestyle swim.  Bill asks, “How can someone that young win, and win by a lot — she set an American record– in an endurance race like the 800m. Can you imagine a 15-year boy winning the 800m in track? Why in swimming, and why with women?

There is long history of girls in this age group doing incredibly well in Olympic swimming.  The wiki link to the 800m record progression (scroll down to get the women’s list) shows a number of outstanding examples including Shane Gould, Debbie Meyer, and Janet Evans.  They were all 15 or 16 when they set records in the 800m.

Swimming is different than running.  By the time many outstanding swimmers are in their early teens they are training extremely hard by adult standards, and many have been training hard for five plus years.  There is less orthopedic stress in swimming, in other words no pounding, so kids in this age group can handle high training loads with less risk of injury.  For so-called aerobic sports (distance swimming, running, cycling), swimming is the most technique driven.  So it is possible for a young swimmer to be both really fit and have the technique needed to win at a young age.

Teenage girls have done well in all sorts of sports for a long time (think tennis and golf), and the other issue in swimming and endurance sports is that there may be a body composition sweet spot where muscle mass is high but before the adult “curves” emerge.

Bill and I discussed some other issues like a white athlete winning the long jump, and a non Kenyan/Ethiopian winning the men’s 10,000m with American Galen Rupp getting the silver.  I will save these topics for later because each deserves a longer post with more on the background physiology and sociology behind them.


One Response to “The Olympics: Questions From Bill K”

  1. August 5th, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Amby Burfoot says:

    With regard to the Olympic home field advantage, there’s a fairly big confounding variable. Olympics get awarded far in advance, right? Not sure, maybe 8 years. At that point, the home country generally makes a substantially increased investment in sports development. So there’s a good $$$ reason why the country might do well when its time comes. The 15 year old kids are now 22-23, prime age.

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